There’s about half an hour of The Huntsman: Winter War that’s legitimately fun: in the midst of the film’s second act, it briefly acquires a sense of humor and becomes an Indiana Jones-like adventure, with Chris Hemsworth as our roughish titular hero.
But what comes before that, and after, is a most unfortunate heavy-handed slog.
This is a most unlikely sequel to the 2012 feature Snow White and the Huntsman, unlikely because the Snow White story did not exactly call out for an investigation into the events of happily ever after, and moreso because this Snow White sequel does not feature Snow White, who is frequently referenced but never appears onscreen.
Instead, the story takes a look at the Huntsman, a minor character in most versions of the story but a featured lead in the action-oriented earlier movie played by Hemsworth.
To get the full lowdown on the Huntsman, we get backstory. Half an hour of backstory, grimly narrated by an uncredited Liam Neeson, telling us everything we never wanted to know about the character, and the Ice Queen Freya (Emily Blunt), who became a chilly warlord when her Evil Queen sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron, briefly returning from the first film) arranges the murder of her young daughter.
In Games of Thrones-like scenes of warfare, the Ice Queen’s army murders and pillages and kidnaps young children after their parents have been slaughtered. Among those children are young Huntsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and markswoman Sara (Jessica Chastain), fierce warriors whom the icy Queen comes to despise because of their love for each other.
And so she forces them apart, and after a prologue so long it encompasses the movie’s entire first act, we flash-forward seven years to events after the story of Snow White and the Huntsman.
Here, Eric is approached by the Prince (Sam Claflin), who informs him of Snow White’s Evil Queen-like descent into madness due to the powerful Magic Mirror, her subsequent exile of said mirror, and it’s thievery by unknown forces.
And so it’s up to the Huntsman, along with a pair of comic relief dwarves played by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, to track down the mirror before it falls into the wrong hands and spells disaster for the fairytale kingdom.
This is when the film starts to develop a sense of not only humor, but genuine adventure: during scenes where our heroes infiltrate a goblin lair in search of the mirror, the further adventures of The Huntsman actually start to become fun. Hemsworth and Chastain are engaging leads, and fully capable of carrying a film like this if it weren’t saddled with so much other baggage.
The previous film involved, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but they were a weak element in a movie dominated by a) Charlize Theron’s wonderfully wicked performance as the Evil Queen and b) director Rupert Sanders fetishistic depiction of the movie’s opulent visuals, which involved a lot of CGI effects.
That means this new film has been shorn of Snow White and the Dwarfs, which is by no means a bad thing despite the oddness of a Snow White sequel minus the major players, and a further emphasis on CGI visuals and Evil Queenery.
But debut director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, visual effects supervisor on the previous film, does not have the same kind of grasp on the look of his movie (though, oddly enough, he has a better grip on the storytelling). While abundant CGI fills the screen at almost every opportunity in the form of cartoon squirrels, porcelain owls, icy blasts, and black and gold goo, it is only rarely the type of eye candy the filmmakers must be going for.
And Theron’s Evil Queen is absent from most of the movie, with fill-in Emily Blunt not commanding enough to match her tour-de-force performance from the original film, nor as spectacularly evil. I guess the filmmakers know this, too, as they needlessly resurrect the Evil Queen late in the third act, which like the opening prologue takes forever to get through.
But when Hemsworth is doing his Harrison Ford swagger and Chastain matches him with the don’t-mess-with-me warrior ‘tude, and Brydon and Frost are on hand for a welcome quip or three, this thing is genuinely fun. Go in half an hour late, and leave 30 minutes early, and you’ll get the good stuff without missing much else.